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to "The Nudist on The Late Shift"


WHEN YOU MEET a billionaire for the first time, you really want him to do something billionairish. You have no idea what being a billionaire might be like, but you can’t help but be curious. What is it like? The billionaire is a little bit of a zoo animal for the public in this way. Particularly the instant billionaire. Because that’s the public fantasy. Nobody’s really all that fascinated anymore with fifty-five-year-old stone-hearted moguls who made their billions crushing little people for twenty-five years. It’s so much more appealing to imagine being a billionaire when you’re young enough to really enjoy it and you haven’t had to be cruel to people to earn it. The Sub-35 Billionaire is really a new life-form, an economic mutation that emerged from this little pond of vigorous capitalist Darwinism. It’s as if dinosaurs suddenly hatched again in the Alviso mudflats of San Jose. The Sub-35 Billionaire, this new species, captures the imagination not just like any zoo animal---he’s a brontosaurus.

So when you meet your first Sub-35 Billionaire, you want to do it in his natural habitat, because that way you’re much more likely to catch him doing something billionairish. You’re not picky. You’ll take just about any eccentric behavior as evidence of what Sub-35 Billionaires are like. Just as long as there’s a sparkle in the moment, the light through the diamond, verifying that it’s real.

It is in this manner, and with this purpose, that people who come to Yahoo!’s offices in Santa Clara for one reason or another take a little detour and navigate the maze of second-floor cubicles to pop in on or observe the Sub-35 Billionaire David Filo, one of the company’s cofounders. When I stopped by recently to have lunch with a friend who’s worked there since June 1996 (a month after Yahoo! went public), I thought I’d better go ask David Filo if he still slept under his desk. My friend has escorted numerous visitors who wanted to make this little detour. He says that most people walk away saying, "I didn’t really get any impression. I was so distracted. I just kept seeing a billion-dollar bill hovering in the air above him." Most people who look at David Filo---and most people who live at Silicon Valley---can’t see past the dollar signs. It’s the same as how some people have a hypersensitivity to cilantro---put a little twig of cilantro in a salad and can’t taste anything but the explosion of cilantro. Except that having a hypersensitivity to a billion dollars is the norm, which is to say that the few people who can see beyond the flashing-neon dollar signs are the odd ones. It is normal to go weird around money, to be made uncomfortable by it, to get supremely excited by it. Money is exceptionally titillating.

I am one of the odd ones. I have an accountant’s clinical calm around figures big and small; I don’t go weird around money, and people get less weird around money when I’m there. It’s like night vision, but rather than seeing in the dark I can see past the nine zeroes. It’s made it easier for me to avoid snap judgments about what I’ve seen in Silicon Valley. I’m inexperienced as a journalist and I’m no good at asking tough questions, but I have green vision.

So I didn’t want to ask David Filo what it’s like to have a billion dollars. I just wanted to ask him if he still slept under his desk. For some time, I looked for an icon of Silicon Valley---an image, thing, or place where one could go take it all in. And in the course of my search, the photo editor for the San Jose Mercury News pointed me to a photograph taken by Meri Simon, titled "Sleepless in Silicon Valley." The photograph is of a programmer sleeping on the carpet in his cramped, cluttered office, head jammed under his desk, gray blanket draped of his fragile torso. The photograph became more meaningful when I learned that the programmer was none other than David Filo. However, the photo was shot when David was worth a mere $500 million, and I guess I had to find out for myself if lie as a Sub-35 Billionaire was any different from being a Sub-30 Cinquentimillionaire.

David Filo doesn’t even have an office. He shares a double-wide cubicle with another guy. It’s a window cubicle, but located right on the thick support pillar, so there are only a couple feet of tinted window on either side. David was standing up, and he was awash in a trash heap of paper. I don’t mean a metaphorical trash heap, I mean an actual one, forty inches deep of unread memos, promotional literature, office chatter. Enough paper to fill several refrigerators. An inopportune bump could trigger a landslide. This trash heap was not a political statement about tree-product waste. This trash heap was not David Filo’s de facto overflowing garbage can (it contained no Diet Coke cans or Domino’s boxes). It was his in box and filing system. How ironic that the guy who has engineered the most popular directory for organizing the morass of the World Wide Web is utterly unable to engineer an organization system for his own paper flow. This trash heap was not to be thrown away. It was a plain old mess, the kind your mom hollers at you to clean up.

Another irony: David Filo, cofounder of Yahoo!, was wearing a fairly well-worn white company T-shirt from Excite, Yahoo!’s fierce competitor. Was this sarcasm? Was this humor" I have no idea. When his choice of T-shirt was pointed out to him, he glanced down at it and gave out a demure little acknowledgment but didn’t really seem to register it at all. He had other things on his mind. If it had clearly been either sarcastic humor or a complete accident that he was wearing a T-shirt advertising his competitor, the moment would have sparkled. Instead it was a letdown. So was our exchange of words, the entire transcript of which follows:

[Our friend casually introduces me.]

Filo: [mumble] [blank stare as if I am a television tuned to Home Shopping channel]

[Our friend mentions my novels.]

Filo: [mumble] Oh, uh-huh. [faint sign of recognition]

Me: [at loss for words, trying to be friendly] You still sleep under your desk?

Filo: [Looks down; under his desk is trash head.] Not much anymore. No room.

Okay, that wasn’t the entire transcript, but things didn’t really pick up from there. I did find it quite amusing that he no longer slept under his desk, not because he had doubled his money since then but because his trash heap doubled in size and squeezed him out. He did go on to say that he was moving to a new cubicle soon. He is not aloof, not somber, not antisocial, not particularly evasive. But he’s something like all those things combined. He’s blurry. I’m hard-pressed to put down a physical description, other than to say "medium." Medium in all respects. How unbillionairish of him! He defies being anything other than a fiercely hardworking engineer. He’s certainly no icon. He emits none of the flash/dazzle/wiz-bang future-is-now excitement that we popularly associate with this burgeoning industry. And I can’t say much more about him other that I think that, regarding his billion dollars, he too is one of the odd ones. It hasn’t made him go weird.

However weird he may be, he already was.


I BEGAN MY search for an icon when a producer for the ABC television show Nightline called me up one day and asked for some help. They wanted to do a minidocumentary about Silicon Valley. Their objective was vague but open-minded: "We want to capture what’s going on out there," said Lisa Koenig, the segment's producer. I like their attitude. Something was going on out here, and I was heartened to hear they didn’t pretend to already know what it was. Before getting on the plane west, they preinterviewed all of the subjects by telephone, and the correspondent, Robert Krulwich, decided to use the cable Internet company @Home as the documentary’s protagonist. Being with a nation television show, they didn’t have trouble getting otherwise over committed CEOS to clear their schedules for two hours with Krulwich and his camera team.

At the end of the first day I asked Koenig how it was going. She said that the interviews were fine but there was a problem: neither she nor Krulwich nor anyone from the camera crew had been here before. Until they stepped off the plane that morning they’d never seen "Silicon Valley, The Place." They had been hoping for an establishing shot that said "You’re here!," the equivalent of New York City’s skyline or the Hollywood lettering in the hills. They wanted visual anecdotes that captured the essence of life in the Valley: the high stakes risk taking, the long working hours, the area’s congestion from rapid growth, the sudden wealth. More than anything, they need to point the camera at something that captured the tremendous buzz.

So far all they found was an endless suburb, hush and nonchalant, in terrain too flat to deserve the term "valley." Along the peninsula the setting seemed to repeat itself, a cartoon backdrop---every few miles another Blockbuster Video, another Chevy’s, another Toyota lot. In between were office parks, quiet in the hot sun. The answer to "What is there, there?" was a cruel letdown.

Because I’ve been around the Valley since coming to college in 1982, I was so accustomed to the locale that I never noticed this obvious point. As I looked at it through this camera crew’s eyes, though, the irony was acute: the industry that gave us the Macintosh smiley face and a screenful of icons that make computers touch-feely familiar never coughed up an icon for the whole shebang. It lacks a place you can go take it all in, to "get it."

When I worked at the investment banking firm First Boston in the mid-1980’s, I would get requests from friends to tour our office "to see what it’s all about." I would usher them out onto the sales and trading floor and the iconicness of the place never failed to live up to expectations. Liquid crystal stock tickers rushed quotes along the walls. Suit jackets that cost thousands of dollars would be thrown over the backs of chairs like T-shirts. Men and women with prestigious pedigrees would be screaming into their telephones, standing up amid war-room-like computer monitors, their faces sweaty and their eyes jerky with the knowledge of having millions of dollars exposed in a moving market. It was an image with a sound track: trading activity in offices around the country was announced over a PA system, echoing in from an aural cyberspace. Fifty phones were ringing at the same time.

Silicon Valley has its places, and though these places whisper their own mantra, they never shout it. You’ve heard that Silicon Valley is glamorous and that it’s a very exciting time to be here, but the glamour and excitement are rarely manifested in the moment. You can stand in the aisles at Fry’s Electronics on a Friday night and see people’s endless fascination with joysticks and Dilbert books. You can have breakfast at Il Fornaio in Palo Alto and know that probably half the people there are in the business, though there’s no way to tell which half. You can attend speeches delivered by the industry’s titans to faithful conventioneers at the Moscone Center, but the same scene in the same location is played out every week by every other convention that comes to town.

I’ve never found one place that said it all. One’s understanding of Silicon Valley is built up over time, in many thin layers, by many small hints. Visually, what can be used as a montage, and that’s what Nightline resorted to. I had pointed them to forty-foot-wide billboards beside Highway 101 that advertise job openings at Valley companies and to the campus of Silicon Graphics, which seemed, in its architecture, to embody the managerial principle of chaotic conflict: the raw materials of brick glass, and unfinished steel butting up against one another in hectic polygons, interrupted by vibrant yellow and bold purple decahedrons. The camera crew also found the trailer home dentist who drives up to Netscape several days a week so employees don’t have to leave work to their teeth fixed and the washer-and-dryer facility at Excite where workers too busy to do laundry at home can do it at work.

I like these visual anecdotes because they looked past the dollar signs to convey how the Silicon Valley lifestyle blurs the line between work and non-work. This trend is going on all over the country and has been for two decades, but nowhere has it gone to the extremes it has in the Valley. What is an "office park" but an oxymoronic euphemism that blurs the distinction between indoors and outdoors, between building and forest, between work and rest---but always seems to result in more work and less rest? Silicon Valley is this concept taken to the level of a whole region: it’s one big office park. In its uninspiring placidity, the Valley offers its workers a sustained level of non-distraction, ensuring that work remains the most interesting and compelling activity in one’s view from of enticement.

But neither washing machine nor a trailer home nor an office park emits any buzz.

ONE PLACE that was getting some buzz for a while was called Mae West. In 1995 and 1996, as the Internet was being developed and people were openly wondering whether the system was stable, it was fashionable to sound informed at cocktail parties by blurting, "I hear Mae West was down today." Though the Internet was supposed to be a big spider web spanning the nation, it was really more like one big spider web on the East Coast and another on the West, connected by a fat hose of fiber-optic lines. The central hub in the east was Mae East and, out here, Mae West. People chatted a lot about Mae West without knowing that "Mae" stood for Metro Area Exchange and without knowing where Mae West was located, which was in San Jose. But it conjured something in our imaginations: half of the entire Internet, running through one room! The amount of equipment that must be there, the clicking and clacking and switching and routing, the loud roar of the Internet would put any Orwell/Kubrick vision of computer power to shame!

A few people were let inside, and in late 1997 it was a very cool thing to do if you were hosting a party anywhere near downtown San Jose: hop on a shuttle bus with your guests and take them over to walk through the Mae. Put that on your invitation, and the RSVP rate doubled. But nobody I knew who went to one of these parties seemed to talk about it afterward. It was as if they were sworn to secrecy.

In a way, they were. The Mae was a telecommunications co-op, managed by WorldCom but owned jointly by most of the big phone companies and Internet service providers. When I called WorldCom to ask to see it with my own eyes, I had to sign a nondisclosure agreement that they faxed to me. This NDA required me to agree not to write about those things anyone who belonged to this wire commune would consider trade secrets. I could, however, describe it in general. No photographs would be allowed.

Three gigabits of data flowed through the Mae every second. Surely here, in the secret center of the Internet, I would find the thrum and buzz of the industry. It’s located in a fiery gold building in downtown San Jose that has so many internal backup systems that the engineer who escorted me upstairs liked to joke, "If the building had wheels, we could drive it to Arizona." I signed a couple more documents to satisfy the security guards in the lobby and took an elevator to the eleventh floor.

Outside the door the sound hit me first---a treble hum of fans and a bass thrum of thundering air conditioners that I could feel in my feet through the linoleum-covered floor. We entered into a vast labyrinth of gunmetal gray chain-link cages, their doors secured by Kryptonite horseshoe bicycle locks. Bolted to the floor inside the cages were ceiling-high racks of Cisco 7500 routers and FDDI concentrators and shelves of modems lined up like books in cases. The wiring of all this equipment twisted into vines and crept up to overhead trellises, then made its way along the ceiling and passed through a hole in the far wall, leading the way to Mae.

Exiting the maze, we circled the battery supply room. Each of these twenty or so batteries was the size of a refrigerator. They are so heavy that to prevent their crashing through the floor, the batteries sit on two reinforced steel I beams. I walked trepidly, close to the tinted windows. For whatever reason, this backup power system was given a corner office, with a view north up Silicon Valley that rivals anybody’s, though, as I’ve said, that’s not saying much. On this hot day, brown smog sat over the lowlands of the peninsula, and the only objects identifiable through the smog were the northern-running freeways. It reminded me again why I was here, and I turned around to finally enter Mae itself.

At last, the inner sanctum.

Two keys inserted into the door and a combination in the cyberlock get us in ...well, it’s sort of like when Dorothy meets the Wizard of Oz. The same cruel letdown again. Mae West turned out to be three gigabit switches, each about the size of a minimicrowave. Each had fiber-optic lines jacked into its face, but---another letdown---fiber-optic cable looks exactly like ordinary phone cord, only it’s colored bright orange so you can tell the difference. The room was perfectly quiet. Mae West, the great Internet hub of hubs in the heart of Silicon Valley, is composed of less high-tech equipment than most people have in their living rooms.

Now I understand why nobody who had been there had had much to talk about afterward.

THOSE ARE the two problems of portraying Silicon Valley:

1. There is very little there, there.

2. What is is shrouded in secrecy.

If you didn’t know better, you might take a look at the tremendous amount of media coverage given to high technology and assume that this place runs like an open book, perfectly willing to be a media darling. It seems like a loose, freewheeling world. In fact, journalists are asked to sign an NDA at every workplace they enter: It’s okay to write about this little gizmo we having coming out next week, but if you happen to overhear anything about this big gizmo we have coming out next year, we’ll take action against you if it appears in print. You will have a PR representative with you at all times. You may not mention the names of our customers or clients without written permission. You may not interview employees unless we authorized them to speak with you. In other words, "Keep your hands inside the car at all times."

For example, I had a couple of acquaintances who sold their company to Microsoft and moved to Redmond; they invited me to fly up and go water-skiing on Lake Washington after work. Then they had to call back and cancel. They were quite embarrassed: Microsoft was insisting on putting a PR representative in the boat with us!

The machinery of work is as tightly kept a secret as our society has anymore. It’s guarded by a legal firewall. There’s just too much money at stake. And in the world of business, nowhere is there more money at stake than here. Everyone's lips are sewn up by severance contracts, nondisclosure agreements, employment contracts, term sheets, shareholder lawsuits in process, settlement papers, "hold harmless’ agreements, formal complaints, ad infinitum. The recent past can’t be talked about because of potential libel or violation of an NDA. The near future certainly can’t be discussed because of the strict Securities and Exchange Commission laws forbidding forward-looking statements. When one company buys another, both parties are strictly forbidden to discuss the negotiations. Intellectual property and trade secrets are carefully guarded. Employees are briefed and debriefed.

That said, there really is a din of news coverage coming out of the Valley, and firms here are desperate to "rise above the noise." This created a perverted dilemma in which companies were desperate to talk to me but the things that I’d like to hear are exactly the things they’re forbidden to discuss. They don’t like it anymore than I do; they are indeed, by nature, frolicsome, freewheeling folks who find the nuances of what they do curiously compelling. They enjoy spilling the beans. They like to know that they have story-worth lives, that their work really is as dramatic as they feel it is. They work away in relative isolation for months, and there’s nothing more gratifying than a journalist showing up and saying, "You’re important." Actually, there is something more gratifying than that. It’s when a journalist shows up and says, "Your life would make a great movie."

But sometimes even that doesn’t get the good stuff out of them. It’s funny what rituals some sources want to go through before they’re comfortable telling their story. Gina comes to mind. Gina recently resigned from working for Pixar after it had gone public, and she was now chilling out, decompressing, reevaluating her life. She was in that stage where the narrative of her life had broken down. Her head was full of so many stories that it was impossible to get them out one at a time. Getting a full story out of her was like catching a fish with your hands: I’d get really close, and then she’d sense my fascination and dart on to another topic. I had to spend long hours with her, and occasionally good stories would peep out.

A trust needed to develop between us. One day we walked the meditation labyrinth inside Grace Cathedral on Nob Hill. By demonstrating the necessary solemnity, I graduated to what I perceived to be the next test: stomach massage. We crossed the street to a busy park, where I stretched out in the sun on a warm concrete bench. The stomach muscles, according to my would-be masseuse, are the hardest ones to relax because they protect the organs. To let someone manhandle your liver is the ultimate test of trust. She would use my abdominal rectus as a lie detector test.

She began to poke at my thorax, and in the course of conversation, she started talking about the programmer nudist who worked the late shift at one of the animation companies that dealt with Pixar. Peep! My interest was piqued, my abdominal wall sprang tight, she sensed my fervor, and she was on to another topic. When I urged her to tell me more about the nudist, she dismissively remarked that everybody knew about the nudist, he was an urban legend. When I begged, she said that yes, she would tell me about him some time.

For the next year, I often wondered about the nudist. I didn’t know if it was true, but it was sensational, buzz-worthy. Nobody can look at a nudist sitting there in his cubicle and see just dollar signs. Being a nudist on the late shift seemed to me to be the ultimate symbol of how people here want to assert their personal values on the job---a symbol of how tightly woven together work and play have become (a heck of a lot better symbol than a dentist trailer or an on-site washing machine). What some people see as a cold techno-Valley of ruthless corporate greed was nevertheless, to him, his Garden of Eden. And there was something innocent about nakedness, exposed and vulnerable. No money in the picture, no Ferraris, no lava lamps, no pocket protectors, no T-shirts---no distraction. Just a man, a computer, and a job.

I sent feelers out, asking friends who worked in animation and graphics. Occasionally I would get back "Oh, I’ve heard stories about that guy." But nobody I talked to had seen him or met him or could confirm that he wasn’t just urban legend.

LATELY, I KEEP getting asked the same question: "Don’t you want to join one of these start-ups you write about and make your bundle?" It’s such an obvious question, but that’s the downside of my green-vision oddness: I’m not very tempted by money. What I do see, when I consider the question, is access. I see a way to get beyond the legal firewall once and for all. I have done my share (but no more than my share) of mischievous trickery: posing as a sales assistant, sneaking into buildings, faking a resume, getting into long conversations without identifying myself as a journalist, et cetera. I have a lot of fun chasing these stories around. Wouldn’t taking a job give me the real inside story?

I didn’t think so. Silicon Valley is a diverse free-for-all of experiences. The experience of being a freelance Java programmer is nothing like the experience of being a business development director of an Internet search engine. Java programmers practically don’t even speak the same language as the business-dealmakers---both have their own slang vocabulary. The experience of working in, say, the New Age human potential culture at Apple is vastly different from working for Intel, where employees go through what is called "confrontation training," in which they learn to call one another names and brutally speak their minds, believing that only through conflict will good ideas emerge. The experience of being a bootstrap start-up entrepreneur financed by serial credit cards is very different from being a fast-track start-up funded by Kleiner Perkins venture capital. The experience of going through an initial public offering is actually quite rare, and even those who have jobs at a company that does go public are excluded from seeing the nitty-gritty process, which is left to the three or four top people at the company who make up the IPO team. And none of the people just mentioned has the faintest clue to what goes on in the sales side of the industry.

If the odds of making a million-plus dollars here in less than three years are one in seven, the odds of my getting a good story by taking a job are probably no better. In order to portray the broad panorama of Valley experience, I feel that my vantage point as a rogue journalist is better than having a job and probably second best only to being a venture capitalist.

So in the end, to capture this region, I fell upon the same device as the Nightline crew: a montage of the core experiences that define the work/life adventure. Because of the legal firewall, in a few places I have disguised sources, and these are noted in the text.

What’s not in this book is a roundup of the Valley’s Most Important People, it’s movers and shakers, its A-list. I’m just not drawn to those kinds of people, and that formula strikes me as a very East Coast paradigm being forced onto a West Coast phenomenon. The Valley is about the opportunity to become a mover or a shaker, not about being one. That opportunity is what gets young people to move here every day from Illinois and India and Canada.

Or, to restate, "movers and shakers" conveys the centralization of power, whereas the Valley’s intrinsic paradigm is the decentralization of power. To create a "mover-and-shaker class" or an "A-list" would be to impose gods, to impose preordainedness, and to worship these gods.

In this day and age, some of us are lucky enough to be free to make what we can of the world. We have independent will at our disposal, and we have the urgent moral responsibility to exercise that will, not follow in the steps of those help up as gods. There are no higher stakes in life, no higher ambition. That is the true spirit of entrepreneurism.

In Silicon Valley, a million-plus young people are lucky enough to wake up every morning to this opportunity. It is perversely amusing to watch us, a generation so afflicted with cynicism and irony, melt ever so slowly in the face of high-paying jobs. Usually it works the other way: the longer you’ve been around, the more hardened you get. But after having poked my nose into so many people’s business, having watched horror stories unfold and successes play out, I’m less jaded now that the day I began.

THAT WAS ABOUT four years ago.

Long ago we used to have a writers’ group. Four guys. We’d meet one night a week at one or another of our low-rent apartments. We drank a lot of red table wine and discussed our stories with stubborn tenacity. The social component was high, we were bound together by a common interest, and it was impossible not to romanticize what we were doing. This definitely seemed to be the thing young men of Dionysian temperament should be doing in their early twenties, living in the bohemian city: stay up too late, rap, chant, smoke, drink, create.

Our writing got us into graduate programs, and one of us started to win awards, first locally, then nationally. I’m not really sure how to characterize what happened next, but I guess we got swept up in the fervor of the times. Or sucked in. One of us started writing newsletters for tech firms, then wrote a few nifty computer books, then became a columnist for a Ziff-Davis report, and soon was a full-fledged high-tech guru, the kind of guy who walks around tech conferences with a small entourage of devotees and PR flacks pitching him the latest buzzword.

Another of us switched his major to computer science and became a graphical user interface programmer, now in high demand. He rants on the theories of computer usability with the same headstrong passion he once devoted to Saul Bellow.

The third---the award winner---started working in the Valley, hoping to save enough money or score with options to take a year off and give his fiction another concerted push. Now he ghostwrites best-selling Web developer books.

I started to record the stories I was hearing from Silicon Valley. Our generation was taking on the label of having been born cynical/passive, and the Valley seemed to me to be the place where that was least true. It offered a chance to leave a mark on a world that already seemed terribly marked up. I started to visit workplaces, go see friends of friends, simply soak up the milieu. The domain of working life, particularly in corporate America, has the stereotype of being inhabited by working stiffs. But I kept meeting young people at the proving point of their lives who risked it all and would either succeed wildly or go down tragically. I wasn't as interested in their success as I was in this way of life: taking risks, forging the future, everything a maybe. For young people, it is very important not to be able to see one’s fate, very important to have the sense that one’s life is not preordained.

I know why these stories interested me. I know what nerves in me go "Quaannngg!" Some journalists have what they call a "bullshit detector." I have what I call a "Goose Bump Meter." If I don’t get goose bumps hearing someone’s story or experiencing it with him, I throw my notes in the trash. I was interested in one thing: people in pursuit of unusual lives.

A writer’s job, in the romantic notion, is to document chaos and to remind us that the chaos exists---that the pretense of forward progress is a lie. That life is crazy and a struggle and haunted. A writer's job, in the romantic sense, is to indulge one’s Dionysian energy, to let it dominate our Apollonian energy, and to have a keen nose for adventure. (Dionysus was the God of wine and revelry; Apollo drove the chariot that carried the sun across the sky with such regularity, such order.) But it’s also just so obvious that the phenomenon of Business has taken over the world, imposing its own form or order. Apollo’s resurrected, and he’s wearing a suit and has his money in index funds and is incredibly popular. As a writer, to ignore the sweeping transformation of what was culture into "the entertainment business," to ignore the obvious ways business elected itself the new culture, would be to turn a blind eye at what most needs to be seen clearly.

In Silicon Valley I found, for a few years, the vociferous expression of both those impulses. It is wildly chaotic. It tears itself down continuously. It teeters on the brink of self-destruction. But it is a chaos unlike any other chaos. It is a smoothly working chaos. It is a chaos that generates endless growth. It is the chaos of hard effort, rather than the chaos of need gratification.

And I would argue that this tapping of both impulses is exactly its appeal to our generation.

If I could say just one thing about Silicon Valley, this is it: every generation that came before us had to make a choice in life between pursuing a steady career and pursuing wild adventures.

In Silicon Valley, that trade-off has been recircuited.

By injecting mind-boggling amounts of risk into the once stodgy domain of gray-suited business, young people no longer have to choose. It’s a two-for-one deal: the career path has become an adventure into the unknown. More happens here and so quickly, satisfying anybody’s craving for newness. In six months you might get a job, be laid off, start a company, sell it, become a consultant, and then, who knows?

I JUST NEVER know when and where Silicon Valley’s bizarre way of life is going to suddenly reveal itself.

On a wet Sunday morning in late March, I was at the West Sunset soccer fields in San Francisco, playing in a regular pickup game that has passed down to new generations for more than twenty years: same time every week, ever since the 1970s. Almost all the players are immigrants, and the game is theoretically open to all comers, but the players are verbally abusive to anyone who doesn’t have the knack. On this Sunday, we were kicked off our regular field by someone who held a city permit and waved it in our faces. We resumed our game on the open grass beside the field. Men in Smith & Hawken rubber raincoats came out to rechalk the filed lines and hang brand-new nets. Bright orange corner flags were planted, and then the referee showed up with two linesmen---the latter a real luxury. I knew the ref from over the years.

"Hey, Hal, who’s playing?"

Hal didn’t know, but he said whoever it was was paying him big money.

Then the teams showed up. It was a coed game, and all the players were adults. Their game began, and when I bothered to look over I could see they were klutzes. I suspected, at that point, that it was some sort of gung ho corporate picnic, determined not to be defeated by the drizzle.

When our game ended, I walked over. I could see then that the uniforms of the team in blue said "Scopus" across the chest, and those of the team in white "Siebel." I knew from the business pages that these were two software companies and that Siebel recently bought Scopus.

I struck up a conversation with one of the players kneeling on the sideline. I asked if this was the way two firms were getting to know each other. He said it was; then he took a good look at me for the first time---my question had implied that I might know a little about the software business---and asked, "Hey, what do you do?" Before I could even answer, he got to his point. He asked, "Do you want a job?"

I couldn’t believe it. But it indeed happened. Do you want a job? His words rang in my ears. There I was, a complete stranger standing in a soaking wet T-shirt with mud splattered on my knees, and I was encouraged to apply for a job merely because I had recognized the name of his firm. How could this be? It wasn’t enough to buy an entire company of people, the fire needed to be fed. More people! The oddity didn’t seem to register on him. Maybe he did this all the time, asking people wherever he went: "Do you want a job?"

I said I was a writer. This disappointed him, but only slightly. He said, "We really need programmers. But we need technical writers too. Do you ever writer about technology?"

I said that I did write a little about that, occasionally.

He pointed a blond woman out who he said worked in Human Resources and urged me to talk with her. Then he brought up the subject of programmers again. Did I know any?

Feeling a little mischievous, I pointed out a pack of my friends who were taking off their cleats and packing their bags seventy yards away: "See those guys? Most of them are programmers." This wasn’t at all true, but the guy’s eyes got big and he dispatched the blond lady to go talk to the group.

This was just the sort of occurrence that to most hair-trigger cultural forecasters indicates what is called a "market top"---the equivalent of when grandmothers take their savings out of the mattress to buy mutual funds. When jobs are being offered to soaking wet strangers, perhaps this is a sign that Silicon Valley has hit its market top.

But later, I was researching software salespeople, and I spent some time with a competitor of Siebel. I learned that Siebel Systems is one of the hardest-driving, most aggressive sales outfits in the industry. Around that time, I received e-mail from a man who identified himself as a Siebel salesperson. He’d read my books, and he was wondering what to do with his life because he could no longer take the relentless pressure of meeting the staggering quotas. It was ruining his life and his personality. Siebel wasn't a company that had a reputation for being fat or lazy, and its revenue results for that quarter far exceeded the financial analysts’ predictions.

What kind of life is this, working for a company that will smile and shake your hand and offer you a job but if you take that job might cruelly drive you to exhaustion? Sure, join the game, come on in! Doesn’t matter if you speak the language. Everybody’s welcome. But dammit, asshole, quicker! Pass me the goddamned ball! Shoot!

CAN THE VALLEY’S high-tech pickup game keep growing forever? Isn’t there some natural limit where the degree of chaos caused by the churning of start-ups and failures exceeds the degree of order established by standardized protocols and it starts to tear itself down faster than it builds up? Doesn’t the fact that the business is running on vapor---without revenues, without offices, without physical products---mean that at a certain point will lose its ability to float? Do the principles of economics work in space, beyond the reach of gravity? Is there any oxygen up there? One fad after another have been proven to be no more than that, but amazingly, everyone still has a job, plugging sixty-hour weeks into the next fad. Surely, surely, a crash is due. Not just a brisk correction that can be patched by repricing options, but a real crash.

Where are the fundamentals? It’s a business based on nothing more than ideas and thus can’t be stable. And aren’t all the good ideas taken already?

Outside, that’s what everyone is thinking. From a distance, the business seems unsustainable.

But here’s what you see from the inside.

I was researching the process of what it’s like to go public, and a firm invited me down to its office to meet its investment banks, who would have to approve of letting me into their show. I arrived at the building, entered the lobby, and got into the elevator for the ride to the third floor. Stepping in behind me were two guys just a little younger than me, wearing blue jeans and striped polo shirts. They were also headed to the third floor and they were in the midst of a conversation about the pros and cons of developing software on the Sun Microsystems Solaris 2.4 operating system versus Microsoft’s Windows NT 3.51 system. I had my little reporter’s notebook with me because I’m always looking for telling anecdotes, and I figured, this is good, these are the engineers, and later I’ll meet the bankers.

On the third floor, these guys popped into the bathroom, and I went in to meet with the company. I met the CEO, the corporate counsel, and the venture capitalist, and we sat down in a conference room.

"Those bankers should be here by now," said the CEO. I was offered coffee.

And then in walked the bankers---the two guys in the blue jeans and polo shirts.

The Valley has changed dramatically. I used to be an investment banker, and we used to do deals for Hewlett-Packard and Genentech. On a good day, in front of a customer, we might have pretended and faked a little knowledge about the technical stuff. On a good day, we might have been able to sketch a diagram on a napkin. But we hadn’t really known anything. We’d been good at changing the subject. When we’d been on our own---in elevators, say---we’d talked about sports. If we’d ever been seen out of our suits, we wouldn’t be recognizable.

It’s extraordinary how savvy everyone is about everyone else’s turf. Even the generalists have a high degree of specialty knowledge. Just a few years ago---around the time I was researching the Valley for my novel The First $20 Million is Always the Hardest---there existed a tectonic divide between the bankers, the engineers, and the marketing whizzes. Engineers, in particular, held a deep scorn for the moneymen. Knowledge was strictly on a need-to-know basis. But under competitive pressure, you need to know everything.

After the meeting with those investment bankers in blue jeans (in which I was dinged, forbidden to observe the process further), I strolled through the engineering/programming cubicles with the public relations liaison. Several of the programmers were working with split monitor screens. On one screen they were programming; on the other, they were trading their own personal portfolios on E-Trade or some such on-line brokerage. They were trading put and call options to give their trades further leverage, and they didn’t think anything of this. It wasn’t unusual, they assured me. Even the public relations liaison held puts and calls on tech stocks. "Don’t you?" she asked.

So here’s what I think. I think if we have grown to this level despite the tectonic divide and scorn between the specialties---with so much lost in the translation every time and so much bumbling ineptitude as the result---now that the divide is gone, now that bankers can chat about workstation operating systems and programmers trade puts and calls and over dinner people debate stupid business ideas, we may be on the verge of the biggest growth explosion yet. We’ve survived the steep learning curve and the embarrassments of goofball concepts and Ponzi scheme financing. We know better. If this industry is driven by ideas, the fundamentals have never been better. The next five years will be the Valley’s greatest boom of innovation to date.

I’m perfectly aware that such a statement will be misinterpreted as being a prediction for Internet stocks, which are circus unto themselves. Though people are willing to make bets, nobody pretends that stock prices are rational. By now it’s perfectly clear that the national fascination is riveted on people who are getting rich quickly and easily---and that it’s hard for the country to see beyond the dollar signs. The Internet is the plot device for the ‘90s; it’s the thing people are using to get rich, like oil and real estate in the ‘70s, or stocks and bonds in the ‘80s. Average people no more understand the importance of Java purification than they did prepayment rates on high-coupon Ginnie Mae mortgage bonds or tax rebates on drilling costs. People on a bus can tell you that was initially priced at $9 per share and finished its first day of trading at $63, but they can’t tell you what you might see if you visited its site. Middle Americans missed their chance to buy Data General in 1975 and Microsoft in 1986, so when they hear there’s a whole ‘nother computer revolution going on, they don’t want to buy the software so much as they want to buy the stock of the company that makes the software.

But that’s fine with the people out here. They’ll be happy to take your money.

I RECEIVED AN e-mail , "Looking for me?" it asked, attaching a phone number. An e-mail I sent out was forwarded through several rounds of recipients to reach him. My e-mail did not say I was looking for "the nudist on the late shift." Someone I’d encountered had thought she remembered the nudist’s name, and I sent out e-mails with every spelling variation of this name, wondering if anyone knew how to get in touch with him.

So now I had the phone number of some guy. But I didn’t know if he was the nudist. It took me two days to work up the nerve to call. How do you ask somebody such a question? If he weren’t the nudist, he would probably be offended and hang up. If he were the nudist, it was probably a deeply personal matter and he would either deny it or be offended by my intrusion and hang up. I developed a strategy: the more apologetic I was up front, the less I might piss him off and the longer I might keep him on the phone. I dialed the number. Right then I realized that the best strategy might be not to apologize at all, to act as if it were no big deal---not give any indication that this might be sensational. I hung up the phone and wrote out a whole new script of questions in this tone.

Two hours later I called back. I had a lump in my throat, and I was growing dizzy with trepidation. His voice came on the line: casual, friendly, well-spoken. He called me by my first name, and we started to chat, in increasing earnest. Then I asked the dreaded question, and he laughed. "My gosh, it’s grown to the size of urban legend."

"Is it true?" I asked.

"It’s [click] true," he said. The ‘click’ was the sound my phone emits for call waiting, which I forgot to turn off. Of all times! So what had he said? I’d heard the word "it’s" and the word "true," but they had been separated by a pause or by the word "not’? "It’s ...true" or "It’s not true!"? The damn click! What if he hangs up on me now? I’ll have come this close and then lost it.

He began to talk about the urban legend and how people misconstrued the truth; how everyone misinterpreted what had happened. How because of this, his reputation preceded him wherever he went. I felt deflated. He wanted to know what version of the urban legend I heard, and I told him what little I heard, as sketchy as it was, and how I’d heard it.

"Typical," he muttered.

"So there’s no truth to it, huh?" I asked, my last hope.

"Oh, no," he said. "it is true."

IN THE PROGRAMMER community, eccentricity is de rigueur, and when David Coons and his wife held skinny-dipping parties, he invited his friends from work. So nobody made much of it that he took his clothes off at the office after ten P.M. At that hour, there was nobody left in the building but programmers and animators working on deadline, and these were open-minded people who couldn’t care less. Besides, David was no ordinary programmer; to get his work done, he invented tools that everyone else could use. He invented one of the first film-to-digital scanners and an award-winning digital ink and paint system.

David had been working slave hours for two weeks straight. The company was trying to get a feature film ready for release, and he would come in around four in the afternoon and stay until 2 or 3 A.M. Working that hard, focused, is like having blinders on. One night he looked at his clock, which said "20:06," and his tired brain misfigured. He thought, "Oh, good, it’s after ten." Still inside his office, he took his clothes off.

About half an hour later, he went down the hall to the CGI department to discuss something with his friend Bijon. On the way back, there was a lady in the film printing room who wasn’t supposed to be there that late---all union workers were reliably gone by ten. That was when David realized he misread his clock by two hours. She was a union employee, and that was the problem. What was perfectly acceptable in the programming culture wasn’t at all acceptable in the film union employee manual. David already had one run-in with the union, which enforced its rule that nonunion workers can’t touch celluloid, so he couldn’t even use the film scanner he invented.

But he still didn’t know anything was wrong. He went back to his office and continued working. A couple of hours later, two security guards knocked on his door. They didn’t know what to do other than to tell him to put his clothes on. Then his boss called from home and told David he’d better go home for the night. For a while, David refused: "I’m working on the project!" He had to get it done.

He was put on "minihiatus," quarantined at home for a week. The film union pressured management to have him fired, but everyone who’d ever had their bugs fixed by him---and everyone he’d ever met a deadline for---stood up for him. He laughed through the whole thing.

Regardless, he got the project done on schedule. That’s the important thing. Eventually the fiasco blew over.

"The whole thing was fun as hell. My little adventure into corporate squabble. If they didn’t want me because I’m nude, then I didn’t want to work there. They had no sense of humor. You’ve got to inject fun into the workplace, or else the force of order will win over creativity. The lieutenants who establish procedures and protocols will eat away at the imagination. Work today has to be half work, half play. We spend our whole lives at the workplace.

"You understand that, don’t you?"

WHEN YOU GET right down to it, the real work of Silicon Valley occurs in the mind---the minds of workers sitting in their cubicles, staring at screens, pondering their challenges. That’s where innovation occurs. That’s where the buzz is. That’s where you can go to take it all in. I keep thinking about this quote from Kafka: You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, be quite still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.